Governments like to claim the high ground of generosity when it comes to welcoming refugees, often listing historic instances which, in reality, would not stand scrutiny as examples. The current incumbents even like to assert their hostility to would-be seekers of protection, inventing risks to the economy, our way of life or community cohesion as justification for their exclusion.
This is a very big and controversial subject, with differing facts and interpretations on all sides, but this Refugee Week, let us just look at one example to illustrate how to get it wrong: Afghans.
The theme of this year’s Refugee Week is ‘Compassion’. The literal meaning of this word is ‘suffering together’. Well, Afghans have certainly done that. Thousands put themselves and their families in harm’s way when taking on roles in support of campaigns by British troops and agencies. They could have had little notion of how they would subsequently be treated by their erstwhile employers when it was their turn to seek help.
Botched evacuation from Afghanistan
UK forces spent over a decade taking sides in a civil war in a distant sovereign nation which had little to do with our interests. In so doing, they procured the services of thousands of locals, mainly men, as interpreters and communicators with communities. Many lost their lives, limbs or loved ones in the fighting.
When, in 2021, it was clumsily decided that UK would at last withdraw, chastened, from this hopeless venture, promises were made that helpers, compromised in the eyes of hostile compatriots, would be assured of rescue and security for themselves and their families. The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme was announced, offering 20,000 Afghans homes in this country, loosely based on the experience of a scheme previously grudgingly offered to selected Syrian victims of that country’s own civil war.
So far so good? Not really. Several thousand were indeed rescued in a botched evacuation process, eventually reaching this country, where thousands more, left to their own devices but equally deserving and desperate, joined them, often by highly risky means such as small boats, of which more later. At least 4,600 Afghans who worked for British forces are known to have been left behind at the mercy of the Taliban and in fear for their lives.
Uncertain futures for Afghan refugees
Between 2021 and March 2023, some 21,000 had arrived here, of whom 9,000 were still only accommodated in hotels, with no choice of location and no local authority support. Just one had been properly resettled in decent housing. Those fortunate enough to be a part of one of the official resettlement schemes, after months in limbo, may eventually be decently housed and resourced; but in the meantime, many Afghan families are being moved from hotels in London and risk being made homeless. So much for Operation Warm Welcome.
Others who dare and manage to leave their country by whatever unofficial means and make their way to the French channel coast, may risk the dangers of a small boat sea crossing, probably under the dubious auspices of people smugglers. Any arriving in British waters can now expect arrest, detention, no rights to asylum or justice and possible deportation to a distant alien land. So the suffering goes on, still in connection with British authorities, in whom they thought they could trust.
Hollow government boasts
It is easy to see the conflict between government’s desire to present UK as magnanimous versus their policy priority of minimising ingress. Both notions have populist appeal, but neither does anything for those in need. This populism demonises those in greatest need, seeks electoral capital out of border control and makes arbitrary choices between groups of different origins.
The Migration Observatory highlights the government’s two-tier protection system, whereby many Afghan refugees are still seeking asylum after arriving in small boats, whilst over 200,000 Ukrainians have received UK visas through bespoke routes such as Homes for Ukraine.
When it suits, ministers proudly boast about those who have been assisted, such as Ukraine, but say and care little about those left out. At the same time, they seek credit for accommodating rescued Afghans in hotels, as if this were in some sense laudable, whilst bemoaning the cost of doing the same for asylum seekers to whom they see no obligation.
Some are offered rights; others are actively deprived of the most basic needs, such as liberty, justice or the right to work. The Afghan pull-out took place in 2021; the war in Ukraine started in 2022. In the district of East Sussex in which I write, fewer than 20 Afghans are now resettled, but over 500 Ukrainians. Such is British government refugee policy: limited, selective, grudging; but compassionate? No.